Winning a Video Music Award may not carry the same cachet as a Grammy, but for 28 years MTV’s signature event has proved to be a reliable source of buzz-worthy pop culture moments — a meat dress here, a lesbian kiss there.
People don’t tune in for the ridiculously uncontested awards celebrating music videos they can’t even watch on the network. Viewers want drama and the show usually serves up a heaping portion of tension, whether on stage or in the audience.
This is the place where Britney Spears has equally sparkled and crumbled, Courtney Love upstaged Madonna and Kanye West stole Taylor Swift’s thunder.
But water cooler fodder was scarce at this year’s show, which earned the dubious distinction of being less entertaining than Thursday’s other big TV event, the Democratic National Convention.
The VMAs were already at a slight disadvantage after last year, when moments such as Beyonce’s pregnancy reveal, Adele’s triumphant return to the stage after throat surgery, Lady Gaga’s cross-dressing performance and a tribute to late singer Amy Winehouse dominated the evening.
MTV struggled mightily to generate similar buzz this time.
The network touted a gimmicky double-decker red carpet, a move across the street to the massive Staples Center — a switch that proved a logistical nightmare for many attendees — and the presence of here-today import boy bands One Direction and The Wanted. But ultimately, MTV seemed to shrug, putting on an abbreviated, two-hour show that didn’t even try to compete with the president’s speech.
After a host-free VMAs last year, MTV was also betting on rising, in-demand comedy star Kevin Hart to deliver the goods. But Hart played the role of back seat master of ceremonies during Thursday’s densely packed show. He strode onto the stage at Staples Center surrounded by a swarm of little people bodyguards — the first of many cracks about his diminutive stature. Despite his frenetic energy, Hart’s routine mostly fell flat.
It didn’t help that several of music’s stars were elsewhere Thursday evening: Lady Gaga was on a world tour, Beyonce was relaxing on vacation, and Justin Bieber was shooting a video. What the VMAs did offer instead was an appearance from the women’s Olympic gymnastics team and a plug for the upcoming “Twilight” saga movie.
Also noticeably absent from the event was any mention of the late Whitney Houston, whose career helped define the network in the 1980s. Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, who also passed away this year, at least earned a perfunctory tribute as the show cut to commercial.
One of the night’s most anticipated performances came from young R&B; artist and critical darling Frank Ocean, who decided to play it safe in his MTV debut. The nimble singer, whose massive year was every bit as groundbreaking as it was inspirational, delivered a beautiful, albeit restrained, version of “Thinkin Bout You.” The crowd cheered loudest when his name was called for best male (he lost to Chris Brown) but returned the love after his performance.
In the absence of real razzle-dazzle, MTV seemed determined to turn the event into an episode of “The Rihanna, Drake and Chris Brown Show.” Hart opened the evening with a monologue in which he encouraged Drake and Brown to bury their well-publicized feud.
“I’m gonna nip this in the bud tonight,” he said, but the network did just the opposite, playing up the perceived rivalry as much as possible. When Brown bested Drake for the honor of best male video, cameras cut to show Rihanna and her pal Katy Perry snickering in the audience.
Though Rihanna won the night’s biggest prize, video of the year for “We Found Love,” her disjointed performance of the raunchy and cheeky “Cockiness” left plenty scratching their heads. Maybe she should have asked to borrow Britney’s python.